Breaking Down Classroom Walls with Google Hangouts: One Classroom’s Mystery Hangout Journey

Back in September of this school year, I decided I wanted to take the use of Google Apps for Education to the next level. I wanted to help my students feel a connection to the world around them. I wanted to break down the walls of my classroom and show my students that they were citizens of not just our school, but citizens of the world.

I had heard about these things called “Mystery Hangouts” on Google+ but I wasn't really sure what that meant. My first step was quite logical. I did some research. I ventured into some open Google+ communities like Mystery Location Calls and Mystery Hangouts and began reading what other teachers around the world were doing. What I found was inspirational! Teachers from one side of the world were arranging times to partner with teachers from other parts of the world so that their students could connect online in a video conference. It was a Q&A game to see who could figure out the other’s location first. 

Getting started
Each community had a form or spreadsheet to add your name to. Educators from around the world could refer to these documents and contact you to arrange a time for a hangout. Very quickly, my students’ first mystery hangout was booked with a class in Calgary, Alberta.

For our first hangout, I followed the advice of other bloggers and had my students sit in table groups around the room, each group with its own responsibility.
  • Think Tank: Students researched based on what was learned in the discussions. They created the questions.
  • Google Mappers: Students tried to pinpoint each location determined in the discussion
  • Runners: These were the kids who travelled back and forth between each of the working groups to share information. The intent was to avoid having kids shouting at each other while running around the room. They wore brightly coloured vests to stand out.  
  • Questioners: asked the questions to the partnering class
  • Answerers: answered the questions about our location
  • Volume controller: muted and unmuted the microphone during the hangout
  • Bloggers: Jotted down notes about the experience to later publish in a blog
  • Supervisor: Assessed the successes and failures of our procedure so we could make necessary changes next time

Mistakes led to learning
Questioning is harder than we all thought. We all quickly learned that the words "near" and "close" are pretty much useless when trying to determine someone's location. By our third hangout we came up with a strategy for asking questions. 

“If I draw a long horizontal line through Vancouver, would your location be north of it?”

This worked really well because the other classroom knew exactly what we meant and we understood their answer as well.

The table group with students trying to accomplish their own responsibilities was great in theory but it proved very difficult. The runners tried to do their best helping each group communicate but so many students had ideas and needed to share them quickly that it was a bit chaotic.

With the guidance of our student supervisor, my students decided on their own that they wanted to try a different strategy of organization. They chose to abandon the table groups and instead all sit in chairs in the middle of the classroom with their laptops on their laps. They each did their own research and whispered to people around them in order to develop the best possible questions. Half the class focused on answering the questions about our location and the other half of the class focused on creating questions to determine our opponent’s location. 

This strategy worked really well. The chaos was eliminated instantly. There was no running around the room. There was no screaming and everyone was calm. At first glance it might have appeared that there was no collaboration happening because everyone was sitting in rows. However if you looked closely, they were really supporting each other! Students were talking with their peers on either side of them as well as the kids in front and behind them.  It seemed that the rows helped them to lower their voices and listen to each other more carefully.  I realize this seems quite counterintuitive, but it worked!

I'm still reflecting on whether this is just a bandaid solution that is ignoring the issue or if it is in fact a solution.

Since I started writing this post, we've had a few more hangouts and the kids actually chose to use table groups again for a couple of them. They slightly tweaked the process though. Each grouping has a mixture of roles (student selected) but they are all involved and sitting in groups where they can see each other. Both procedures work well because my students learned how to collaborate in an effective manner. They understand that shouting on top of each other isn't going to produce any positive results. They understand that patience and listening skills are essential when collaborating.

The kids in the blogging group collected some information during the first few experiences but they really needed more guidance as to what to record. In the future, I'll try to prepare a graphic organizer to help them record their observations. I also made the mistake of not following up with them and their blog post never came to fruition. Setting a timeline for myself and them together will be important to make sure their efforts are validated. 

Even though we still obviously enjoyed the whole mystery hangout process, my students and I started to feel like there was more that we could be doing with this amazing tool. We had the potential to connect with the world and bring it into our classroom. Why stop at a simple question and answer game? I went back into those online communities and searched for opportunities to partner with educators who could share experiences with my students in the form of “Virtual Field Trips”. I connected with Virgin Galactic to have my students conference with future space pioneers. My students conferenced with a teacher from South Korea to learn about Market and Command economies. They partnered with the Minnesota Zoo to learn about animal habitats and wildlife preservation from the experts. We even connected with award winning author Lois Lowry to learn about the writing process.

In the end
Google was recently collecting reflections from teachers and students on how GAFE has impacted their education.  My students took this opportunity to reflect and the responses honestly touched my heart. They explained that participating in Google Mystery Hangouts and then later Virtual Field Trips have broken down the walls of their classrooms and forged connections between their small group of grade 8 students and the world! They see themselves as I had hoped they would. They understand that they are citizens in a global society.  

Tips and Tricks for a Successful Mystery Hangout
  • Get written consent at the beginning of the year so that your students have permission to be on camera in a Google Hangout
  • Try to connect to the internet with an Ethernet cable. Connecting with an ethernet cable helps reduce internet dropout issues associated with wireless internet connections.
  • Always try to connect with the partnering teacher, even if it’s just for 2 minutes. It’s just doing your due diligence. You’d never book a field trip without speaking to the destination first, right?
  • Double check the time zones.
    • I recently made a mistake thinking that we were 2 hours behind our partnering school when in fact we were only 1 hour behind. You want to make sure that you are both ready at the right time.
  • If you are sending the link to the hangout to the other classroom via email, make your subject line is very clear: DO NOT LET STUDENTS SEE THE INSIDE OF THIS EMAIL.
    • Once I opened up an email from the other class just before the hangout was to begin and a student happened to see it on the LCD. He immediately saw their school name, searched it up and figured out where they were in the world. Luckily, he kept it to himself to avoid ruining the experience for everyone else.
  • Be strategic in what you are wearing. Sports jerseys, university sweaters, and other recognizable logos may help your opponent determine your location
  • Screen Shot 2015-03-09 at 4.46.08 PM.pngUse the Hangout Toolbox to create a smart lower third name tag
    • We use "Mystery Hangout - Somewhere In The World"
  • If it is available, have a second LCD to project a Google Map on the wall and have a student monitor that map. It’s helpful to have one consistent map for everyone to look at in addition to their own maps on their devices.
  • Have a student recording on the board everything you’ve found out about the other classroom as well as everything the other classroom as figured out about your location.
  • Screen Shot 2015-03-09 at 5.00.52 PM.pngMake sure to always mute the call when you are not intending on communicating. You never know when you’ll accidentally reveal your location.
  • If one school manages to locate the other’s city quickly, challenge them to determine the name of the school and even the principal’s name.
  • Arrange to re-connect at a later date with questions about each other’s location. It’s a great opportunity to develop authentic research questions and learn about your own city’s history.
  • Reflect as a class on the successes and the failures and be open to trying a new strategy.
    • We tried different methods for our hangouts based on class suggestions.
    • Do what works best for your group of students.
  • Check out this post for many more extensions to Mystery Hangouts. 

Virtual Field Trips 7439295582145530268

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